Will the meek really inherit the earth? ( a sermon preached at Falcon Lodge)

How paradoxical it all seems! To be blessed by one’s sufferings and persecutions, to be blessed because one is poor as Luke’s version puts it and to be blessed because one is hungry for righteousness- and more!! Truly here is a world turned upside down.

I invite you to focus on just one of these beatitudes-blessed attitudes as some have called them. It’s this.

Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.

Now we know that’s not true in our world. What do the meek inherit-an eviction notice-a promise of social housing in 40 years’ time-a mould ridded poorly maintained flat at an exorbitant rent-a tent in the underpass. Those who inherit the earth are those who inherit family wealth or have appropriate connections. Not the meek-they are the losers. Meek are you! You’re fired.

Jesus ‘message to you and I is that we should seek after a loving God and follow his way of meekness and majesty- a different kingdom to that of the Kingdoms of this world.

What then of the poor, the marginalised and those who have conspicuously failed to inherit the earth. Now there are those who will answer in these ways. Let us in kindness give the opponents of the gospel the first word.

All is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds.

Capitalism is not a perfect system but it is the one in which the bad can do the least harm.

The kingdom of God belongs to the time of the not yet. We must await the age to come.

Indeed as Jesus said –the poor you have always with you. Charity is wasteful and social justice is a mirage. The best to help the progress of society is to get all we can and promote economic growth.

References supplied on request.

And so secondly beware! Before you adopt any of these points of view remember the fullness of Jesus’ teaching and practice. Jesus called upon his hearers to repent for the kingdom of God is not to be indefinitely postponed. It is at hand-imminent-breaking through now! That’s from Matthew’s gospel last week’s gospel reading. We are poised between the already and the not yet.

And remember also what Jesus does. He reaches out to the poor, the underprivileged, the marginalised and the hungry and feeds them. The time of the Kingdom of God does not follow the time of the Kingdom of this world. The two are juxtaposed. What is the Church but a sign of God’s new world order. That’s why this a community of love-God’s Kingdom and why profit, power and worldly status have no place among us. This is also why Christians often find themselves persecuted. Every time when I come here I pass a place where a Christian minister was put to death because his Christian teaching didn’t correspond with establishment teaching. It helps to concentrate my mind on my Sunday duty!

A very useful phrase to sum up our Christian situation is this one. We live between the times. The time of Christ’s first coming and that of his final coming. But we don’t just wait passively. We pray for the coming of the kingdom and we create here and now signs of his Kingdom’s coming.

And so thirdly I have spoken so far of our inheritance of the promise of the kingdom. But what of the meekness that is the key to this inheritance. Yes Jesus and his people are revolutionaries but not in the usual way. Jesus is not Che Guevara with a halo. When his disciples point to the weapons they are carrying his response is utterly straightforward. That’s enough of that!

What then is meekness? Perhaps a better word would be humility. And we can see in the life and ministry of Jesus and those who have followed him most closely that humility is always the keynote of their lives. Ultimately it is humility that disarms the powerful and opens the way to the creative love of God. If this sounds like foolishness remember our epistle reading and Paul’s famous words. The foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

In this act of worship and fellowship around the Lord’s Table we receive him in the signs that he has given us. We become his body in the world and remember the words of Mother Theresa that Christ has no body now on earth but ours. We become as St Augustine put it, what we eat. And so you see we receive a calling to continue his work in the world-in love, mercy and humble service for the coming Kingdom in all its fullness. This can seem daunting but there are many who have walked this way before us and have become an inspiration for us. What’s more we have John Wesley’s final words and testimony to serve as a benediction. The best of all is that God is with us. 

Wake up and smell the coffee!

Today is Advent Sunday. Advent is the season in which we affirm all that is real in our lives-for good or ill –and all that is real in the providence of a loving God. Get real we sometimes say to one another in an argument and that use of the phrase has overtones of judgement. Truly it is an Advent saying. So let’s get real but remember how the poet T S Eliot penned his famous line. “Human kind cannot bear very much reality”. Too true! Alas. When I was in another circuit I penned an article entitled CAMRA-Campaign for a Real Advent. That campaign continues somewhat against the odds.

Sadly we know that most people prefer sentimentality and nostalgia for a vanished age that never really existed. Have yourself a merry little Christmas just like the ones you used to know. Get out that Advent calendar with a different luxury chocolate for every day.

Courage sisters and brothers – get real-embrace the reality of our situation and the reality of God’s love. Remember that you and I are Methodists and what is a Methodist but a Christian in earnest.

The times are dark. Of course it is always dark at this time of year-the days short and getting shorter. We withdraw into our own worlds and binge on old films and TV repeats. Netflix and I player plus comfort reading-chick lit- the novels of Barbara Pym. We go to bed early. I speak of my own experience of course.

Another poet now: W H Auden in his opening sequence for his “Christmas Oratorio”:

Huge crowds mumble-Alas our angers do not increase,

Love is not what she used to be

Portly Caesar yawns; “I know, I know”.

Who can speak against the darkness? Surely the shepherds abiding in the fields who keep watch over their flocks by night rather than dwelling safe in their episcopal palaces.

St Paul however says to us; Wake up cast off the works of darkness-put on the armour of light! Smell the coffee.

But the times are especially dark this year. War in Europe, in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. The environmental crisis grows steadily more alarming and the response from governments increasingly feeble. Then there is the cost of living crisis and the threatened disruption occasioned by strikes. The Churches too are experiencing difficult times: financial crises, abuse scandals, and declining membership rolls. By schisms rent asunder by heresies distressed to quote a favourite hymn. From the same hymn my wife who is an Anglican churchwarden often quotes the line about the tumult of her war and her longing for peace for evermore.

Our leaders both in Church and state seem distracted by peripheral issues and unable to offer us a vision for the future. Small wonder then that we draw the curtains, sit by the fire and turn our attention to a media landscape of escapeism.

But St Paul says: wake up, smell the coffee. Put on the armour of light!

The armour of light. What might that mean for you and I?

The Christian life is a journey-a journey of small steps. Every step we take in this world is a step towards either darkness or light. Every harsh word, every act of resignation in the face of challenge every act of submission to hopelessness, every mean and lazy decision is part of the works of darkness. Every act of forgiveness, every act of love however small, every temptation resisted is a step towards the light. We must put on the armour of light and not submit ourselves to the clothes of darkness.

You and I can’t reform the world but we can at least be pointing in the right direction clad in the armour of light. Look towards the east O Jerusalem and see the salvation that is coming from God.

Paul insists that salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. How can he say this? How can he say this to the Roman Christians who he’s never met? Sometimes scholars say that Paull was simply wrong and that to expect a second coming is simply a mistake.

I think however that what Paul wrote is profoundly true in two senses –that God’s promises are to be trusted, that his promises will be fulfilled and that our call is to put on the armour of light and work together for the coming of the one who will bring in the fullness of God’s love. In so far as we are doing this we are sharing in God’s work of salvation and meeting the coming Christ in the one who needs our help. Salvation is nearer then when we live this way than when we first believed.

That’s one sense.

The other is to insist that that the Christian life is a journey from darkness to light-a series of spirals upwards towards the fullness of revelation when we come to understand that God is all in all. Today is the first day in the Christian year-a new turn in the spiral and each turn brings new truth, new insights, and new revelation.

The poet who expressed this most beautifully was the Italian: Dante-who in his Divine Comedy describes the downward spiral into hell and the upward spiral to the summit of the heavenly mountain. Flicking over the pages of the National Geographic magazine in Waitrose recently I came across a beautifully illustrated article about him-one of those pictures is on the screen now. You see even the magazine rack in Waitrose can be a vehicle for Divine truth.

Forward then together into another turn upwards of the spiral staircase-speaking out against the darkness and putting on the light of Christ and rejoicing as we by words and deeds light Advent candles in the darkness to signify the hope that is rekindled within us.

You know we Christians are always looking forwards in hope which is why the last words of the New Testament are the words of Jesus.

Surely I am coming soon.

And our response:

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

Methodism Today: Resurrected and Resurrecting

Daily Reflections on the Resurrection | North Thompson Ecumenical Shared  Ministry

Forget the pandemic for a moment and set aside you anxiety about gas bills. In five to ten years these struggles will no longer demand our attention, but this reality will:

  • Less people than ever in our society will be a part of a church.
  • Less young people than ever in our nation’s history will be a part of a congregation, enter a church building, or open a Bible.
  • Christians, if current trends continue, will be a minority population in our society by 2070.

We do not get to choose the time in which we live, but we do get to choose how we live in our time. If the Church is to be reimagined in this era, we must realise that a vision of the church precedes a vision for the church. Rather than consider the form or structure of a denomination, we are wise to recall the function of the church. We can begin by considering some of the hallmarks of the first disciples who followed risen Jesus Christ.  

The first disciples placed their trust in the power of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the crescendo of proclamation in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul. The first Christians understood that if Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected to new life, he really was the Messiah, Saviour, and Lord. They followed His way with this level of conviction in the resurrection.

Their actions were consistent with the kingdom of God Jesus said was breaking into the world. The experience of the resurrection changed them. Their ministry and behaviour was always in keeping with the kingdom of God present in their lives individually and as the church. 

The disciples whole life was first and foremost a spiritual life. Their life in Christ was not limited to one day of the week or a set of activities that made them feel good in the rest of their lives. The Holy Spirit led them to honour God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Their love of neighbour and self flowed out of their ongoing experience of God’s guidance from the time they awoke to the moment they entrusted God with their nightly rest.

The disciples had a deep concern for those who did not know Jesus. Throw them in jail because they talked about Jesus, and they converted the guard. Tell them if they talk about Jesus again bad things will happen, and they said “…we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20) Evangelism, the ability to talk to others about Jesus, was not a program or spiritual gift. It was what they did because Jesus had changed their lives and they knew He could change others’ lives as well.

The first Christians healed the sick, made sure people had food, lived in communities where everyone had enough, and attended to those on the margin. They did what they sometimes did not want to do. This included outreach to the Gentile population, after the Holy Spirit told them that God now called such people “clean,” a rather significant and historic revision to Judaic law and tradition. Whether through acts of compassion or calls for justice, the early church offered God’s love, compassion, and power to those who were lonely, suffering, or in need. They loved people, even the ones who threw rocks at them.  

As Christianity declines in the United Kingdom, other theologies and ideologies will fill the void. The Methodists in the UK will become more like the Methodist Church on the continent of Africa, where Christians are distinct because they are in the religious minority. Being distinct is the opportunity before us. We already live in a time when the wisdom of Christ stands in remarkable contrast to the foolishness of the flawed ways our cultures tell people they will find security and happiness. The teaching of Christ and the foundational beliefs of our church make more sense now than ever because of the failure of leaders in society to offer people much other than division, dissension, and fear. A resurrected Methodist Church must offer people a unique, Christ-ordered way of life that is resurrecting to those its hopes to reach and an alternative community within the larger society, just as John Wesley envisioned.

Those first disciples discovered that resurrection was a new state of existence. It was not about working harder to be a little less dead, it was a complete new life. For our church to have new life, we will have to rethink how we form people in the Christian life. Accountable discipleship, once a hallmark of Methodism, must emerge afresh in this time. The more spiritual encouragement and functional accountability people experience, the more progress they make in their sanctification. Our task is to help people live distinctively Christian lives that are attractive to others because of the integrity and love they demonstrate. Prior to Constantine, the early church did this slowly. They were not interested in quick, emotional conversions. People had to commit to the completion of the catechesis. They learned and lived the way of Christ before they were made members of the church. 

There is no structural change that will bring the Methodist Church greater vitality. We can only find it as we seek the power of God and resurrect the function of church, live the resurrection way deeply, and offer Christ and his love and wisdom to the world. 

Grace and peace,

Alan.

Methodism Today: Dot-to-Dot.

World's largest connect-the-dots puzzle

As a child my maternal grandmother would join us for Sunday lunch and tea. I always looked forward to these times because she was my ‘Nana’ but also because she would bring a bar of Fry’s Chocolate Cream to share and a puzzle comic for me to do.

I particularly liked doing the dot-to-dot puzzles, where, if you connected them in the right order, the seemingly random dots on the page would reveal a picture of a car or ship or something.

In many ways the life and mission of the church is like a dot-to-dot puzzle. These ‘dots’ are the unchanging aspects of a churches life and work, like personal invitations to gatherings, breaking bread with a neighbour, singing praise to God, reading his word, offering the life of the world in prayer and offering a captivating message. For many years we have joined this dots together in a particular way to reveal a picture we call Church.

But what if you could join the dots of the puzzle together in a different way to reveal a different picture? If we connect these dots in the “right” order, we just might have an exciting, life-giving movement on our hands. 

Many churches are now quite familiar with a both/and reality, especially with worship. Churches stream worship online while also having people in the pews. On any given Sunday you will find an offering plate but many church members now give online. (Some churches even have contactless card readers to accept donations!) The both/and world is becoming quite familiar, but often overlooked is the responsibility to recognise that both/and is not just about church logistics. Living into this tension elicits a pastoral response. Many are feeling left behind with the quickly changing technological landscape, and with this dramatic change there is grief, those who were on the ‘offertory rota’ no longer have a role to fulfil.

We must hold in tension both the grief and excitement of this new augmented landscape. Many for the first time feel like the church is listening to them. Creating discord servers, developing space in the metaverse, and investing in digital currencies as a means through which the church is serving a new generation, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of those currently in our communities. It’s not about the technology, but it is about the connection (or lack thereof) technologies affords.  As of yet there isn’t an app on the market that can heal a hurting soul who feels forgotten. We must connect the dots between what technology can do and how technology makes us feel. 

In the church there is often a resistance to change and those who resist change will speak about ‘change for changes sake’. I must admit I agree that change for changes sake is not always the best way forward. If change comes it must be adaptive change, joining the dots in a different way to produce a better not just a new picture.

Twenty or so years ago there was a church that had experienced their “golden” years: substantial growth, effective mission, expansion, and influential community leadership. The minister who led during this time of abundance eventually came to the end of their time in the circuit and was stationed elsewhere, and with his successor came great strife. The following years offered division, antagonism, and depending on who you ask, great trauma. Since this shake-up, the congregation seemed to find some reason or another to ask the minister to start packing every four to five years. Why? With each new appointment the next minister was being asked, explicitly or quietly in the hallways in between meetings, to recapture the past. The incoming minister’s vision was never enough. It never could be because repeating the past is impossible. It is not an altogether bad thing to desire the best practices of a fruitful time. Connect-the-dots puzzles are a tried and true children’s exercise, but if you’re hoping to find a connect-the-dots book within walking distance from your home at a corner news shop your walk will probably end in disappointment.  

Congregations tempted to reclaim past mission and vision are in a particularly difficult context today. As I mentioned in my previous article, we are all running the third great Covid marathon; “Nostalgic Scarcity,” the desire to reclaim the past through already limited resources. Nostalgic Scarcity might be an unfamiliar phrase, but “let’s get ‘back to,’” and “This is how we used to do it,” I’m sure will resonate in many churches with a slight traumatic tremor.

Churches who want to ‘get back to’ are stifling this new environment to explore the realities of mission and church today, both physically and digitally. Some members will even go to the extent of removing the dots to prevent a new pattern being formed, the “if you do this I will resign from the church” brigade. Enshrining the past is not a bad thing, but it is the job of museums, not the calling of churches. 

Adaptive change will be waiting for us at the Covid marathon finish line, and with adaptive change there is always a cost. The cost is often loss. Several church members of that church left when the new ministers failed to invest in creating a “get back to” environment; however it seems that the congregation has never been healthier. The worshiping congregation is certainly slimmer, but also more nimble, more missionally engaged, and frankly happy. We must connect the dots between what will bring us into a more fruitful future with the recognition that not everything/one will join us on that journey. 

The good news is that the church is not being called to be innovative, witty or clever. We simply need to be where the people are. We need to connect the dots between the excitement of innovation with the sorrow of grief. We need to connect the dots between the fruitfulness of moving into the future with the loss from adaptive change. We need to connect the dots between innovative technology and the people the technology should serve. When we reconnect the dots of our churches life we will see the shape of a cross. It may have been hard to see at first in the midst of exhaustion and rapid change, but it is our faith that it is there. So, how are you being called to reconnect the dots of your churches life?

Grace and peace to you, Alan.

Being an Attention Seeker-a sermon preached at Kingsbury

Jesus told them a parable to this effect. They ought always to pray and not lose heart. Persist don’t give up. Continue to wrestle with the situation and with God. That is the message of both scriptural passages today.

It’s unusual for the gospel writer to give the meaning of the parable at the outset but perhaps he felt that his readers needed a little help in coming to an understanding of Jesus’ message. Perhaps in our irreligious age we ought to step back and ask a more fundamental question> namely what is prayer. How should we understand it?

In the end prayer is about waiting on God-giving him our full attention.  The orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God-that is prayer. God we believe is infinitely loving and cares for each one of us so we need to pay attention to him and put ourselves in his way.

The French philosopher and writer Simone Weil who was also a High School teacher believed that the study of mathematics or difficult foreign languages like Greek developed the power of attention in students. Consequently such studies were not only helpful to students in their academic and intellectual development but also in their prayer life. This seems odd at first but I’m sure she was on to something. These days’ people find it hard to pay attention to anything for any length of time and they crave instant amusement and complain constantly that they are bored. Perhaps you are bored with me now.

If prayer is to be understood as giving our attention to God we might also consider what prayer is not.

Prayer is not magic or the casting of spells. It’s not about uttering words or phrases to ensure particular outcomes at critical moments. Of course familiar words or phrases uttered at critical moments of crisis can be a comfort to us and have their value but at best they are only a key or a pin number to open up the heart so that it gives its full attention to God.

A famous story told by a French religious figure-obviously it’s their day today-concerns the famous priest known to history as the Cure d’Ars. Walking through his church one day he saw a man kneeling in silence before figure of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Time passed and he became used to seeing the man kneeling day after day before the cross. So he asked him about how he was and what he was doing. He replied; I looks at him and he looks at me and we are happy together. That’s as good an account of prayer as you will find.

Prayer then is giving attention to God. Getting in God’s way and letting God get in our way.

That’s my first point perhaps the key point. The second thing to say is that prayer has a number of aspects:-

Praise: We need always to be praising God for who he is and what he is doing.

Confession: Giving attention to God also means attending to our sins and shortcomings which prevent us from making a full engagement with him.

Thanksgiving-we should always be giving thanks to God for his love and care and his ongoing engagement with us.

Intercession-in which we ask for things. But what things?

You will note, I hope, that when I come here I try and make space in the order of worship for each of these elements. The choice of hymns should also follow this pattern.

All these elements of prayer are needed if we are to have a serious engagement with God who loves us. If some elements are missing we are just left wish wishing and hoping which leaves us feeling disappointed when our wishes don’t come to pass. Always we need to get real-real about ourselves and real about God.

Coming to Church Sunday by Sunday we follow this pattern and this provides us with a template for our own private devotions.

What then thirdly is the use of praying?-to quote the title of a famous book by a Methodist author.

Prayer is good for us because it is the gateway to a holier life and a holy life is a happy life. Holiness and happiness are linked. Prayer is a means to happiness. That’s useful!

Prayer changes things. Not that prayer changes God rather it changes us. Because it changes us it opens up new spaces for God to act in the world – a world so often gripped in a kind of unholy necessity. Prayer changes the world because it changes what is possible for God and for God’s people who act in his name.

When people say, especially in committees: oh but we must be realistic I feel as perhaps you do too the grip of a kind of iron law of necessity. Realistic – well yes- but whose realism are we talking about-our reality or God’s reality. God leads us in prayer to enlarge our ideas about what is realistic in his name.

That’s very useful.

Faced with injustice in the world and with suffering and anguish close to home we must not give up. The cynicism that disguises itself as realism is too easy. Today my diary tells me that it is Freedom Sunday and next week is One World Week. It would be easy to feel cynical and detached in the face of increasing discrimination violence and oppression among the peoples of the world. What can we do? We can call upon God and place ourselves at his disposal. Above all we must persist in prayer as the gospel tells us to do. Be assured says Jesus God will vindicate us speedily.

The key theme in both our Bible readings this morning is struggle. Persistence in prayer as Jesus commends it in his parable and Jacob wrestling with the mysterious “man”. Who is this man? Could it be God? Charles Wesley seemed to think so.

Art thou the man who died for me

The secret of they love unfold

Wrestling I will not let thee go

Till I thy name and nature know.

The struggle you see. To know God and to know his purpose for us through prayer.

But in this struggle we have two great allies:

The Bible in which we learn who God is and how he acts and the Church Christ’s body here on earth present with us in his people and in the signs he gives us most notably the Holy Communion which we are about to celebrate with him, for him and for the world.

You know we did a good thing coming here today. Congratulations to us all for coming together to know God, to seek his will and to enjoy him forever.

Be assured he will vindicate us speedily.

Methodism Today: Where Worlds Collide

Two planets colliding: one short, but beautiful simulation

Like many around the world I watched with interest the final moments of the NASA Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) program, when on 26th September the DART rocket was intentionally crashed into Dimorphos, the minor planet-moon of the asteroid Didymos. This was a test to see if humanity could change the direction of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) thereby defending earth against an asteroid collision. If you want to know why ask a dinosaur!

Interesting you may say but what has this to do with church life? Well, personally speaking, at times mission feels trying to knock an asteroid on a permeant orbit in a different direction.

Post Covid we are emerging into a very different world where the church is being pushed in many different directions. In good Methodist style there three areas I want to consider and these can be further divided into three different directions.

Firstly we are the fulcrum of three ‘ages’. The industrial age, the information age and the augmented age.

Many church members are part of the industrial age. Industrial age members see church as bricks and mortar, worship is about attendance. Information is physical in the Newsletter and the pew-sheet.

There are fewer members in the information age but they feel as much apart of their church as industrial age members. Church is about community, worship is streaming and information comes through social media or e.mail. They may attend church occasionally but are happy to participate online, they opt out of receiving a physical church newsletter.

The smallest group, perhaps because they are the newest are those of the Augmented age. Although we do not know they are the smallest group because they aren’t counted in the same way as other groups. They have avatars, usernames, and gamer tags. These people put down their phones down because wearable technology is becoming its own force. They don’t register their attendance at all. They don’t have to because Augmented Age locations have geofences and register their presence automatically. Where as the citizens in the Information Age go to the internet. For the citizens of the Augmented Age, the internet comes to them.

The challenge for the church is all three ages coexist so how do we mission to them. If you only count those in church on a Sunday morning as attending you fail to register those who follow on social media. If you don’t produce a physical magazine many will feel forgotten. If this wasn’t difficult to navigate we have to remember that we are still living with a global pandemic.

Tackling a pandemic has been described as a marathon and not a sprint. In fact we are running three marathons.

The first Marathon was the one of traumatic innovation. Suddenly every where shuts down we all have to wear masks as of yet there is no treatment no vaccine. Even the church (building) is closed. There is great trauma in this first covid marathon, life is like building a house whilst trying to live in it.

We asked questions of the church we have never had to considered. What does it mean to be “present” with one another while being physically separated? How far does the Spirit stretch when blessing communion elements? Is online worship viable? The good news is that this first marathon has come to a relative conclusion for many. Not for all. There still exists great trauma and sadness from what Covid stole. Friends and family who exist now only in our memory and the eternal heart of God. Missed birthdays and other family and community milestones. This marathon has lasting effects, but on the whole, this race has been run.

As our churches began to reopen we faced a second marathon, that of spiritual exhaustion.

Daily life has never been more exhausting in our lifetime, especially for families with school-aged children. This exhaustion has again led to people asking important questions. People began to seriously consider if they are in the right occupation, location, relationship, and faith community. In-person worship attendance is returning much more slowly than many imagined because it’s taking longer to recover from the week’s activities. It also is revealing that worship for many people was an additional “activity” rather than a lived rhythmic reality of everyday life.

As we reflect on the new reality of church life, post-Covid we are just now beginning to see a third (and final?) covid marathon beginning. That of nostalgic scarcity.

As we think about the future life and direction of the church many people will be scared that there isn’t ‘enough’ of church to risk with speculative programs and missions. And what capital we have in church we want to invest in getting back what we once had. I can’t blame people for wanting to reclaim what it felt like before all the craziness, but there are some aspects of Church life that won’t make it out of Covid. So, let us celebrate and morn and move on.

It would be one thing if these were consecutive races, but they aren’t. Many churches are running all three at the same time, and we wonder why our tempers are short and there is a great resignation happening across the board. 

Now if you have managed to stay with me so far, well done. I don’t want to end on focussing on our challenges without offering a way forward.

Moving forward, either getting a degree, developing a new hobby, or even working through grief, was more or less defined by a paradigm or pathway. First do this, then when that is completed, do that. It was systematic, planned, and expected. The trouble is that Covid has gummed up the works and we find things have ground to a halt.

So if there is no systematic pathway forward for the church we must look for other ways. Another way is to develop a new eco-system for the church to exist in.

Youtube worship and Zoom Bible Study. All seems to be moving in the right direction again…until there seems to be little reason only to study remotely, or there seems to be little reason exclusively to ever go to the church again. The ecosystem begins to break down. The waste within the system becomes unpalatable, and the seamless give and take necessary for a thriving ecosystem only produces bitterness and frustration. So we are forced to re-examine Jesus call of the first disciples and abide.

To abide with each other and with Jesus. We neither try to maintain a pathway or fine-tune an ecosystem. Moving forward becomes compassionately personal. Pathways and ecosystems have work or production at its centre, but Jesus’ “abide” model of moving forward is a people first movement. It gives rise to a decentralised church and autonomous organisations where church members can just be. Where thy are not defined by levels of attendance or roles fulfilled or tasks completed. To abide is to understand that we are not perfect and we are all a work-in-progress. 

What is the point of all my rambling? The nine areas of church life I have briefly discussed need to come together, not like planets crashing it each other, which often happens in the life of the church but like the intersecting circles of a Venn Diagram At its elusive centre is an industrial, informational, and augmented space of traumatic improvisation, spiritual exhaustion, and nostalgic scarcity, moving us from the familiar pathways into an ecosystem that is begging for us to simply abide with one another.  So, take a deep breath, give yourself a break, and know that you are not alone.

God bless,

Alan.

All Good Gifts Around Us

Harvest Festival – Origins, facts and customs » Lockie Envelopes

Autumn is upon us and we enter the season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness, – which is romantic for cold and damp! It is also the season of the Harvest Festival.

Despite being an urbanised society we still like to decorate our churches once a year as if we lived in a victorian country village. However I have noticed over the years our harvest giving has changed. Long gone are the giant marrows and 6ft long leeks, now we want long life milk and packets of rice and pasta that can be used by the local food bank. So what does a Harvest Celebration have to say about God and about us today.

In our world of 24 hour supermarkets, with shelves bursting with countless prepackaged forms of wheat, barley and their gluten free equivalents, with multiple forms of Makuna honey and chilli infused olive oil, it can be easy to take food for granted. Harvest time is a great opportunity for us to recall and celebrate together the origins of these good gifts. To express our gratitude for the land and the people who produce them and thank God from whom they all spring.

However the work of Food Banks and Food Pantries remind us of a different world of ‘food’ in our country at the moment. We see families in food crisis and a hidden world of hunger in a ‘land of plenty’.

Every day there are people who experience the wilderness (of food poverty) and of slavery (to circumstances beyond their control) is both real and raw. Yet in the midst of the frustrations of the current situation these is still opportunity to recognise and appreciate afresh our dependence on God’s provision. Whether it is the gifts of food from business or individuals or time and prayer from our community we see a wonderful expression of God’s care for those experiencing hard times.

It can be tempting to view charity donations as a one-way transaction from donor to recipient, but the reality is much more complex. In one sense it reflects our utterly dependent status before God, both as giver and receiver. At Harvest time we remember that the ability to grow, transport, process and purchase even the very food itself is ultimately a gift from Him. Consequently we can learn a lot from the Foodbank clients about heartfelt gratitude and praise.

In true harvest thanksgiving God warns against trying to draw distinctions between circumstantial and self-inflicted poverty. Instead he invites us to remember the true source of our (fragile) wealth and our (transitory) ability to produce it – Himself. 

Moreover, in celebration, we are encouraged to give thanks for the ultimate gift they foreshadow: the rich, undeserved, unearned, extravagant grace offers to us all through Christ.

The words of Deuteronomy remind us that God’s gifts of Harvest are ultimately not about food but about wholeness and total wellbeing.

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.

Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. Deuteronomy 8:7-10

The land of plenty he provides is a confirmation of His unswerving faithfulness to His people. The Land of plenty provides community, security, and home. It looks forward to time when He will ultimately dwell amongst us.

Grace and peace to you in this Harvest season,

Alan.

Keep on Growing.

21,843 Plant Growing Through Crack Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free  Images - iStock

Usually at this time of year I am wishing everyone a ‘Happy Methodist New Year!’. This year I feel like saying ‘Welcome to a brave new world?’

The first of September always sees a change in Methodism with ministers starting their new appointment’s across the connexion. In our circuit we will be welcoming Rev Nick Jones as our titular Superintendent Minister and the Rev Novette Hedley as our District Chair.

However there will be a major difference this year and for the following year in that Rev Nick will not be resident in the circuit.

This will mean that the way the circuit operates will be very different. Already our church stewards will have noticed this as they wrestle with the increased number of Local Arrangements each church is given on the current plan. No doubt other issues will arise as we live in this new reality and we will deal with them as they arise.

I think part of the problem is that Methodism has changed very little over the last forty or so years so when faced with necessary change of our current situation we seem unable to cope. So what do we do?

As Methodists we often look to our founder John Wesley. John was born into a high tory church family he was given a traditional theological education at Lincoln College, Oxford. And entered the Church of England as rather priggish and vain young curate. He then met the real world and struggled to cope. However with the influence of the Moravian Brethren and his friend and evangelist Rev George Whitfield he began to change and continued to change even after his conversion experience at the Aldersgate Meeting House.

John Wesley described himself when he wrote in his journal in the spring of 1739 in response to George Whitfield’s field-preaching: 

            I was “so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.” (Journal & Diaries,18:612) 

John Wesley’s remarks remind me of present-day mainline Protestants, particularly some Methodists. Have we become similarly preoccupied with decency and order over and against God’s ministry of salvation? Rather than a tenacious maintenance of decency and order—where are we called to practice holy tenacity participating in God’s redemption?

Holy Tenacity

Holy Tenacity is the kind of inquiry, embrace, and sharing of the gospel we find in the church of the New Testament, particularly Acts of the Apostles, Paul-meets-Lydia kind of way. (Acts 16:11-15.) Holy tenacity embodies God’s redeeming love for all by reflecting the light and holiness of God’s love in authentic sacred relationships that offer glimpses of the joy and justice of God’s reign.  Jesus sets the ultimate example of holy tenacity particularly in his teaching that embodies Scripture’s salvation narrative.  

For me, Holy Tenacity describes God’s work in us to courageously and persistently respond to the Holy Spirit’s compelling us to share God’s relentless love in Jesus Christ in spite of expectations of appropriate Christian, or “churchy,” behaviour.

One aspect of holy tenacity is seeing God at work in our world and in us wherever we are. We need to see God at work in or lives and community. No matter how sad, angry, guilty, or grumpy, we are feeling we need to speak about God’s work of love in our lives and in the world. 

Love Well

Implicit in John Wesley’s words about tenacity and ministry is a central question about how to love well.  We are called by the God, in both Old and New Testaments, to love all of His/Her creation, those with and without power. We are called to love the unloved and the unlovable, even Judas.

Through stories, poetry, and parables we learn about God’s relationship with humanity and creation. I must admit I shudder when the Bible is described as a rule book, or a reference manual. The Bible is the narrative of God’s salvation for all creation. This does not mean there are not difficulties, challenges, and difficult expectations as we read this divinely inspired but very human composition. The Bible is ultimately about God’s unrelenting love and inexhaustible pursuit of you and me.

Churches, no matter how small or large, practice holy tenacity when they embody God’s love. This can include random acts of kindness. Paying for someone’s shopping at the supermarket. Giving a bottle of water to someone in need. Not charging for coffee at a church coffee morning. These are pleasantly welcome gestures. However, it is the truly countercultural Christianity of repentance and forgiveness that really changes the world.  

This counter cultural church is seen even before the birth of Jesus in Mary’s Magnificat. In the context of Jesus Christ’s nativity, we discovered how practicing holy tenacity extends into a world turned upside down by God’s grace. Reading the Magnificat we discovered how to lament the persistent oppression of systemic poverty and exploitation and challenge the exploitative power of the rich. It is in our mutual listening to the Gospel and tenaciously loving one another that we find ourselves working together with the Holy Spirit to release victims and victimisers from the oppressive systems of today’s culture and the dead weight of our history. We then participate in God’s redemption and the changing of the world.  

Whether in or beyond church buildings, God’s Holy Spirit is moving in and among us inspiring holy tenacity and challenging us to love well. To what tenacious holiness are we and our church being called to this Methodist year?

Grace and peace

Alan.

This Way Out

Hedge maze - Wikipedia

How do you get through a maze? Well there are two ways, either you form a strategy and work your way out or you jump out.

Yes I know the second option sounds ridiculous but bear with me.

As the Sutton Park Circuit we are facing a difficult few years ahed, we could be said to be in a maze with many options but also numerous dead ends. So what do we do? The simple answer is to produce a plan but there is another way.

Rather than planing our way through the maze of challenges we think our way through?

In His book Strategic Thinking, Thomas Bandy writes; “The essence of strategic thinking is to shoot an arrow straight into the heart of the community. It is about simultaneous church growth and community development. That arrow is a straight line from the Heart Beat of the faith community—toward the Heart Burst of the surrounding community, guided by the Heart Song of God’s unique love.”

Strategic thinking sheds the deadweight of unproductive plans, avoids the pitfalls of imposed agendas, and overcomes the roadblocks of cost and stress.

The Heart Beat of the church is the core values and beliefs of the church community, the faithful, discipleship between church members and God. The Heart Burst of the church is the urgent desire to reach the often diverse community around us. The Heart Song of the church is our experience of God and awareness of His calling on our lives.

The focus of strategic thinking is on vision and people, rather than programs and finances. So long as the church is guided by the vision, stays within boundaries that the vision sets, then they do not need endless meetings to asses whether the plan is succeeding . The church only needs to come together to address problems they can- not seem to resolve themselves, recommendation to terminate irrelevant programmes, and to brainstorm big ideas to grow the church and bless the community.

Strategic thinking connects church identity and vision with congregational creativity . It begins with trust and ends with action. Along the way, it strives to understand our community, discern God’s will for the future of both church and community, and evaluate progress so far.

Too often we hear church leaders complain about what they call the “Tyranny of the Urgent.” They say that they are unable to find the time or energy to set priorities, consider new ideas, or pray for renewed vision—because they are too busy attending meetings, sustaining struggling programs, managing conflict, and running the institution. This is not the tyranny of the urgent but the tyranny of the trivial. Strategic thinking is the art of discerning the difference between the really urgent and the truly trivial, and the courage to do the first and delegate the second.

When churches are driven by urgency rather than by triviality, the church grows and the community is loved. When churches are driven by triviality the church declines and the community is ignored. This means that many members understand “faithfulness” backward, they believe we are called to be faithful to the past model of church and mission when we are really called to be faithful to the God of the future. The problem is that faithfulness to the God of the future is much harder than a faithfulness to the past.

The essence of strategic planning is to build and sustain the institutional church. But the essence of strategic thinking is to build and expand the kingdom of God. The former concentrates on activities, property, and money. The latter concentrates on leadership, priorities, discipleship, and working with others. 

Strategic thinking requires the reframing of the questions we ask of our selves.

Strategic PlanningStrategic Thinking
Who is in Charge?How much do we trust God?
What do we compromise?How passionate are we about the vision?
What do the members want?What does God want?
What is the plan?What are the priorities?
What tasks should we do?What are the boundaries of our mission?
Will we preserve harmony?Will we grow?
Will we attract new members?Will we change our world?
Will we survive?Will we succeed?

Strategic thinking is really about critical momentum, not critical mass. Small congregations can have great momentum into their community where larger ones can often become lethargic and mistake numerical success as missional success.

The way of strategic thinking is remarkably humble. It is humble before the public: listening first and speaking last; observing before acting. It is humble before God: praying first and acting later; slaying rather than preserving sacred cows.

The Sutton Park circuit has to some degree embarked upon a the path of Strategic Thinking with its ‘Living and Growing God’s Kingdom’ Vision and the development of Mission Centres and Hub Church model. Sadly the Covid epidemic and Lockdowns has derailed this somewhat, but with determination I believe we can get back on track and use the challenges we are facing as a spur to engage in more strategic thinking for the future.

Grace and peace,

Alan.

Bigger Barns or Riches before God

Luke 12:13-21 and Colossians 3: 1-11

Sometimes I find myself reading the Bible and I reflect as I read it that I couldn’t possibly say this in Church. The message seems so contrary to conventional thinking or the wisdom of the west that it might pose a difficulty for the congregation so that it might be better to drop it or change the subject. And then I do a double take and I realize that I am reading it in church. Gosh! I say to myself. Today’s gospel from Luke 12 is just like that-a shock. Conventional ways of thinking are being turned upside down. But a lot of Jesus teaching is like this-paradoxical, strange and profoundly counter-cultural. And yet you know the Christianity does indeed proclaim an alternative society-we call it the kingdom of God.

The parable is concerned to teach about property, money and economic growth. Jesus has a lot to say about these things. Money can scarcely be spoken of in Christian contexts without embarrassment and yet Jesus has far more to say about money than about prayer which was the topic for discussion last week. After all Jesus will say in next week’s gospel where your treasure is there will your heart be also. And where is our treasure; in the bank, in the pension pot, in the equity growth plan or in stocks, shares, units or bonds. So when Jesus speaks it’s not always easy to understand him or rather we’d rather not understand him.

Reading this parable compels one to ask oneself some killer questions. Where do I find myself in all of this? Does this story hold up a mirror to our society and indeed myself? And what are these riches before God of which Jesus speaks? What in short does it show us?

The character at the heart of the parable is described as a fool. Wherein lies his folly? At one level he sounds quite sensible building bigger barns, accumulating reserves and making provision for the future. Folly! It sounds quite wise and prudent at least initially.

Folly takes two forms here.

First: The man.  Listen to his voice. He’s wholly wrapped up in himself. He’s talking to himself. The other day I was browsing the Amazon web site and I saw this advert for notebooks each one with a humorous cover. One in particular caught my attention. It read: “Of course I talk to myself. Sometimes I need expert advice.

The way of Jesus is not the way of self. We are called, to reject hedonistic individualism and look outwards in the name of love and mercy. The way of Jesus is the call to love others and find fulfiment that way. It’s not a manifesto commitment establishing our entitlement to be loved ourselves.

The fool in the parable is looking inwards and his self-love is fuelled by greed and avarice. Covetousness- explicitly denounced in the letter to the Colossians. No mention of his employees who will actually do the work of building the barns. It’s all about him.

Folly it may be but we should not underestimate the popularity of this man’s folly to the modern mind. Listen to the politicians who want your votes. Bigger barns they promise you, lower taxes and more economic growth. That’s how they think they can get votes including yours.

So first the folly of the man and now secondly the folly of misreading the reality of the situation as he understands it and Jesus re-interprets it. For Jesus suggests a re-interpretation of reality. Get real you might die in the night! What then will be the status of your ambitious plans?

We might add some additional considerations. Inflation could destroy your pension pot, civil unrest could upset your business plan, climate change could and probably will destroy everyone’s plans, and fraud is an ever present reality. Bigger barns may no longer be needed in an age of just in time inventories and containerisation etc., etc. No doubt you can think of other considerations. Get real is a good message. But reality is stranger than it used to be but be of good cheer Jesus is the new reality.

Then thirdly –those riches before God. What are they? God is the ultimate giver. He gave us life and everything that enables life. So to have riches before God is an invitation to draw close to him and share his life of giving. To give and not to get. To live selflessly rejecting superfluous stuff of which the greedy can never have enough.

Here is a story from Russian Orthodoxy – a famous one. They could do with some good publicity at the moment.

Once upon a time there was a woman and she was wicked as can be and she died. The devils took one look at her and threw her into a lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood by thinking: What good deed of hers can I remember to tell God.

Then the angel remembered and said to God. Once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman.

And God answered: “Now take that same onion and hold it out to her  in the lake, et her take hold of it and pull and if you can pull her out of the lake she can go to paradise, but if the onion breaks then she can stay where she is.

The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. Here, woman the angel said, take hold of it and I’ll pull.

And the angel began pulling carefully and had almost pulled her all the way out when others in the lake saw her being pulled out and they all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was as wicked as wicked can be and she began to kick them with her feet. It’s me who is being pulled out. It’s my onion not yours.

No sooner had she said it than the onion broke and the woman fell back into the lake and was lost.

And the angel wept and went away.

Riches from God are what you can give not what you’ve got.

What then must we do? We must remember. After all that’s why we come to Church, to remember, to get our bearings and to chart the way forward.

All things come from God not from our skills still less from our sense of entitlements. The ultimate source, measure and guarantor of our good life is not our wealth but God’s goodness. Tuning into this will help us address the environmental crisis because the roots of that crisis lie in our refusal to see nothing and no one above our own desires.

But be of good cheer God is with us and he delights to welcome us home and restore us to our right mind. Congratulations to each and every one of us for coming today to help us all to remember this. Such active remembrance constitutes in large measure what it is to be a Christian and a Methodist is a Christian in earnest.